New Age Islam News Bureau
26 May 2015
India’s First Halal Cosmetics Store Is Less Religion and More Style
• Brides for Sale: Pakistani Men Involved In Trafficking For Sham Marriages
• Lured By Jihadi Bride Recruiter, Mom 'Abandons' Kids to Join Islamic State
• Women’s Rights to Vote in LG Polls in Peshawar ‘Under Threat’
• Rights Groups Slam Myanmar Birth Law as Anti-Muslim
• India’s First Halal Cosmetics Store Is Less Religion and More Style
• Botswana’s Traditional Leaders Push for Polygamy Legalization
• In Rakhine State, Muslim Children Are Disappearing
Compiled by New Age Islam News Bureau
Iran Women's Magazine, Zanan-e Emrooz, Forced To Close
26 May, 2015
When the Zanan-e Emrooz magazine started publishing again in June 2014, after eight years of suspension, women’s rights activists in Iran felt a spark of hope that there would be further opportunities to demand women's rights. However, the life of the magazine was short-lived. After less than a year and only publishing 11 issues, the Press Supervisory Council ordered its closure on April 27, 2015. The council's speaker said the suspension was due to Zanan-e Emrooz “encouraging the anti-social and religiously unsanctioned phenomenon known as white marriage.”
In Iran, "white marriage" is a reference to unmarried cohabitation. Zanan-e Emrooz? —? previously known as the Zanan Magazine before its suspension in 2006 — had published a special report on white marriage in Iran in its October 2014 issue.
Though this marked the magazine's second suspension, many journalists concerned with women’s issues consider the accusation of “encouraging white marriage” as a mere pretext. Jila Bani-Yaghoub, a well-known female journalist in Iran who has spent time in prison due to her activism, told Al-Monitor, “The suspension of Zanan cannot be due to a few reports about white marriages. All administrations have had great problems with the issue of women’s rights and this is apparently their red line. This was the same in the administration of [President] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and it is also [the same with] Mr. [Hassan] Rouhani.”
Zanan Magazine published its first issue in February 1992 and was first suspended in 2006, during the second year of Ahmadinejad's term, due to the magazine's "endangering the moral security of society." In its first series, the magazine touched on many taboo issues in Iranian society: equal marriage rights for women, women's right to divorce, gender-based employment discrimination, women's political participation, violence against women, the role of women in cinema and literature, and unequal criminal sentencing for men and women.
Shahla Sherkat, Zanan's publisher and chief editor, told Al-Monitor that in the 1990s she published the magazine purely to inform women. “Additionally, the goal was to make women more sensitive about the issues regarding their gender and the problems it faces, and also bringing awareness to the administration, the decision-makers and those planning issues related to women,” she said.
Sherkat said that, throughout its lifetime, Zanan Magazine achieved two of its goals. “First, providing a context for the cooperation and exchange of ideas between Iranian women inside and outside the country. This was done with the goal of considering all ideas and opinions and avoiding actions that might somehow damage the main body of the women’s movement. Second, training a successful generation of female journalists who had a positive effect on the general atmosphere of journalism in Iran. Sadly, however, some of them had to leave Iran later.”
Many important figures in the Iranian women’s rights movement published articles in Zanan Magazine in the 1990s, boosting its reputation and influence, including: Mehrangiz Kar, Nahid Moti, Nayyere Towhidi, Goli Emami, Mozhdeh Daghighi, as well as famous directors Rakhshan Banietemad and Tahmineh Milani.
The magazine published a series of expert roundtables on “the most important issues for women in Iran.” In one such roundtable, published in April 1997, Farideh Farhi, now a professor at the University of Hawaii, said, “One of the problems we have had, particularly after the revolution, is that women’s issues have been politicized. As a result, whenever one wants to talk about the most meager things regarding women, one is accused of being an imperialist or someone bent on importing the ‘rotten culture of the West’ into Iran.” In 2014, Zanan similarly tried to highlight issues pertaining to women, albeit in a more social context and avoiding political debates.
"Zanan Magazine has been an important part of the soul of the women’s movement in Iran," said a political analyst in Tehran who wished to remain anonymous. "When the news of its republication spread, many considered it a new life coming to the body of the women’s movement. This has been the most important publication about women’s issue in Iran’s modern history.” The last issue of Zanan, before its suspension in April, included reports on the experience of being a mother, women's post-divorce custody rights and the lack of insurance for homemakers.
Mahmoubeh Hosseinzadeh acted as the editor of the magazine's “Documented Narratives” column. She told Al-Monitor about the magazine's goals during their recent 11 months of publication. “We analyze the issues and problems facing women, and in this way, help planners, the authorities and the decision-makers understand women’s demands and challenges. We also help the readers understand the legal limitations and political and social issues, so they can understand their rights better and recognize the problems and thus try better for a more improved and humane situation.”
President Rouhani’s minister of culture, Ali Jannati, often prefers to stay quiet in the face of the press crackdowns implemented by the judiciary and the Press Supervisory Council, and has rarely filed objections. In this case, Ministry of Culture spokesman Hossein Noushabadi even suggested his support for the magazine’s closure: “We will discipline any publication that might want to encourage antisocial or religiously offensive behaviors or ridicule the public morality.”
Despite all these restrictions, Sherkat said that she never expected the magazine to be suspended. “I act within the limits of law," she said. "Sadly though, the authorities sometimes act this way. I expect that before suspending a publication, they allow the publisher to explain his or her own point of view, as any defendant is allowed to do.”
No trial date has been set for the magazine. “I am trying to resolve the misunderstanding, but am ready to attend any trial set for Zanan-e Emrooz," Sherkat said. "I will defend the publication and make it clear that nothing against the law has been published.”
Sherkat is still optimistic about continuing her career in journalism. “I have never been discouraged … as I believe someone who has given up should just go buy a grave and lie down inside it. Otherwise, there is no other way and to remove these misunderstandings, we just have to work and work.”
Brides for Sale: Pakistani Men Involved In Trafficking For Sham Marriages
26 May, 2015
LONDON: Klara Balogova was 18, penniless and heavily pregnant when she rode thousands of miles from Slovakia to England to marry a man she had never met.
She knew he did not want her, or her child. He wanted her European identity card. The marriage was arranged so the 23-year-old Pakistani groom could gain the right to live and work in Europe.
Balogova was promised a clean place to stay in Britain and maybe even some money. But she says within days of arrival, she was moved from Manchester to Glasgow in Scotland, where she was kept in an apartment with her future husband. When he wasn't around, his younger brother would stand over her, and her identity documents were taken away.
“He didn't let me out at any time. He told me it was not possible to go out there,” said Balogova, a shy, petite Gypsy woman who spoke reluctantly, never making any eye contact when she was interviewed. “Once a week we went out together. I was never allowed to go alone.”
Each year, dozens of women like Balogova from the poorer corners of Eastern Europe are lured to the West for sham marriages.
The men, who authorities say are often Asian or African, pay large sums because they want to live, work or claim benefits more easily in their chosen country and move freely within Europe. The brokers, often organised criminal gangs, take most or all of the profits. And the women sometimes end up trapped in a foreign country with nothing.
This relatively new form of trafficking comes at a time when Britain continues to tighten its borders, and politicians across Western Europe are clamouring for tougher curbs to immigration. Illicit marriages to get around these laws are becoming more common, including direct arrangements between grooms and women as well as the sale of brides.
In Britain, one of several countries where the brides show up, the number of women suspected of being trafficked for sham marriages in 2013 doubled from the year before to 45, according to the National Crime Agency. And Europol last year identified this type of crime as an “emerging phenomenon.”
Most brides get paid-for trips to Britain, Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands, and some don't fully realise what they've gotten themselves into until they arrive. Women have been held captive until their marriage papers are signed, abused by their “husband” and his friends, used for sex and drug trafficking or even made to marry more than once, according to European authorities and charities.
“Depending on the case, a woman can be sold for thousands of euros,” said Angelika Molnar, an anti-trafficking specialist at Europol. “I can tell you it is lucrative.”
In Latvia, trafficking for sham marriages is considered so serious that the government is leading a European Commission-funded international program to combat it. Of the 34 trafficking victims lured abroad from the Baltic state recorded last year, 22 were for sham marriages, according to Laisma Stabina, anti-trafficking coordinator at the country's Interior Ministry.
The numbers are still tiny compared to the thousands of cases of fake marriages reported each year to Britain's Home Office, where brides agree to wed for money and are considered accomplices. But officials acknowledge that the trafficking of brides is hard to track.
“I think the problem is much bigger than we realise, because we only see a small percentage of the offences being committed,” said Phil Brewer, head of Scotland Yard's trafficking and kidnap unit. “There is still not a big understanding of the signs.”
To understand why the women do it, you need only go to Balogova's village.
Balogova, like most women trafficked from Slovakia, comes from a destitute Roma, or Gypsy, settlement. It lies on Slovakia's border with Ukraine and Hungary, and is home to about 250 Gypsies, Europe's poorest minority group. Most of the tin huts have no plumbing, the lanes are muddy, the houses are grimy, and the water from a rusty well is contaminated.
Nicholas Ogu, a social worker, says he knows of several others from Balogova's village who were married in Britain. The trade, as he called it, is controlled by a Gypsy gang that recruits the jobless and poorly educated with offers of good earnings abroad. The women become bogus brides or go into prostitution, while the men typically end up in forced labor.
“They lure them, sometimes offer them a flight ticket, sometimes they go by bus or car,” said Ogu. “They arrange the wedding ... when the men got what they need, they get rid of them.”
The perpetrators are groups of Slovak or Czech nationals who live in Britain, while their crime partners do the recruiting back home, according to Miroslav Wlachovsky, Slovakia's ambassador to London. Scotland is a particularly popular destination, he said, likely because its laws allow marriage without parental consent at 16, compared to 18 in the rest of the UK.
“The scheme is almost always the same,” he said. “They tell them they can work here, in restaurants and so on. It's always promises of a better life, or promises of big and fast money.”
Pregnancy is considered a bonus that boosts a groom's chances to stay. In November, police said they uncovered a trafficking ring where a 38-year-old Pakistani groom had paid up to 15,000 pounds (US$22,000) to a gang for a 20-year-old pregnant Slovakian woman. The woman believed she was going to visit her sister, but was met by a man at Luton airport and taken to an apartment instead. She married her “groom” in July, in a ceremony presided over by a self-proclaimed imam in a house in Rochdale, a town near Manchester, police said.
The woman, who is also Gypsy but cannot be named for legal reasons, was regarded as a more “significant commodity” because she came pregnant, according to Rochdale detective inspector James Faulkner. But once the husband had his legal documents, a woman posing as the victim's sister took her to the hospital for an abortion.
The victim, who had a learning disability and spoke no English, did not realise what was going on until an interpreter spoke to her.
“She thought she was going for help as she had abdominal pains,” Faulkner said. “She was absolutely appalled.”
Sometimes the women are lured with promises not of money or jobs, but of love. In one case, a Lithuanian woman met a Pakistani man in Britain after he wooed her for months on Facebook, according to social worker Kristina Misniene. The man claimed persecution in his home country, and even told the woman he loved her.
Then he snatched away her passport, so she felt she had no option but to marry him. She didn't have the money for a return ticket, and she was raped twice by an “uncle” of the groom, Misniene said.
Another woman from Latvia went to Britain because her boyfriend wanted to sell her off as a bogus bride to offset his gambling debts, according to Gita Miruskina, a lawyer with the Latvian non-profit Shelter Safe House. When she changed her mind, she was locked in a room, and her captors cut her arms with scissors.
“It lasted for 10 days and that's when she agreed she would marry,” Miruskina said. “She was under 20 years old.”
What happens to the women after the marriages is not clear. Some find their way to shelters. Others are cut loose when the men get the residency rights they wanted.
Many of the women are also more vulnerable because they may have troubled lives or little mental capacity. Only a handful of such cases have led to convictions, because they cross country borders and the women are often scared or unable to testify. Also, to the frustration of social workers, some are so poor that they would rather be exploited abroad than stay at home.
Balogova, now 22, was to get married after she gave birth in Britain. But hospital authorities grew suspicious about the identity of the child's father. They also discovered that she had no idea how to find her way to her supposed home, just a few blocks away. In the end, the groom was deported before the wedding. Balogova, who was never paid, stayed at a shelter and returned to Slovakia two years ago with the help of social workers. Her baby, a girl called Aisa, was put in social care in Britain, where she remains, because officials believed she would be unable to take care of her child.
Yet Balogova admitted that she would be willing to take her chances in Britain again.
“I didn't want to come back,” she said flatly. “It was a hundred times better for me in England.”
Lured By Jihadi Bride Recruiter, Mom 'Abandons' Kids to Join Islamic State
26 May, 2015
Melbourne: A 26-year-old Australian woman has allegedly abandoned her two children to join Islamic State militant group in Syria.
Jasmina Milovanov told her babysitter she was going to pick up a new car earlier this month, but never returned to her home in Sydney.
Milovanov, a Muslim convert, is believed to have been lured overseas by a notorious Jihadi bride recruiter.
She reportedly text her Turkish-Australian ex-husband in early May telling him she was in 'sham', an Arabic term for Syria.
A New South Wales (NSW) police spokeswoman confirmed that counter-terrorism police were investigating a woman who had reportedly flown overseas, Sydney Morning Herald reported.
"As the matter is a current investigation by NSW Police attached to the Joint Counter-Terrorism Team, it is not appropriate to comment further," she said. Milovanov has left behind two children, aged five and seven.
Milovanov's former husband said he was "absolutely shocked" by the text. There has been no communication since. "The only thing I can think about is my children; I can't believe she left these two beautiful children. My son was saying in the days afterwards that he hoped 'my mum is OK'," he said.
Milovanov is Facebook friends with former Melbourne woman and Jihadi bride recruiter Zehra Duman, whose husband is believed to have been killed fighting with the Islamic State earlier this year.
Duman has since been using social media to recruit other women to move to the war-ravaged region and join the terrorist organisation. Yesterday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said 100 Australians were engaged in fighting in the Middle East with various extreme terrorist organisations, and that another 150 Australians in this country were known to be actively supporting them.
He warned Australians that home-grown terrorism was "getting worse not better" and now represents "a serious threat to our safety as a people and as a nation".
Women’s Rights to Vote in LG Polls in Peshawar ‘Under Threat’
26 May, 2015
PESHAWAR: While a petition of civil society organisations against the barring of women voters from participating in the recent Lower Dir by-election is pending with the Peshawar High Court, another civil society organisation has feared that women might be denied the right to vote in many parts of Peshawar district during the May 30 local body elections.
Blue Veins, which works to strengthen the people’s voice for free, fair and peaceful elections in Peshawar, urged the relevant authorities to step in and ensure that women use their right to vote in the upcoming polls.
In a statement issued here, Blue Veins explained how there was a threat that women might not be allowed to use their right to vote in the May 30 local body elections.
It feared the women’s voting rights would once again be compromised by verbal agreements between candidates, community elders and religious leaders in part of Peshawar district, including Landi Bala, Achini, Bala, Sangu, Haji Banda, Landi, Payan, Adizai, Shrkara, Maryamzai, Tela Band, UZ Azakahil, Mashokhel, Shiekh Mohammadi, Sarband, Sangu, Bata Tal, Bara Sheikhan, Shahi Bala, Urmar and Shakarpura.
Civil society says women in parts of Peshawar might be stopped from voting
“Social taboos and poor organisation will likely deprive a large number of women of their right to vote. It is time to reject and challenge these practices. Media and civil society must call on the government to look into it,” it said.
The organisation said stopping women from voting in elections was a violation of their basic rights.
It said the local government election in the province had created a good opportunity to change the entire paradigm of disfranchising women voters as witnessed in the past.
“We all have the responsibility to bring about positive changes for women in society by increasing their political participation in a culturally and politically constrained environment. It is not enough to recognise that voting is a right. It is equally important to enforce it as a civil responsibility,” it said.
Blue Veins said it was the right of all Pakistani citizens, both men and women, to cast vote for the election of representatives of their choice and that the Constitution didn’t allow discrimination on the basis of sex.
“Under electoral laws, too, it is an offence if someone directly or indirectly uses or threatens to use force, violence or restraint in order to compel a person from propagating against participation of any person in elections on the basis of gender. “This basic principle has also been reiterated in many judgments of our superior courts. The religion, too, entitles women to full protection of rights,” it said.
The organisation said it along with other organisations was focusing on several areas in Peshawar districts and working with communities to increase the voters’ turnout by advocating against discrimination or barriers to voting and engaging young voters for proactive and constructive role in ensuring peaceful elections on May 30.
It said efforts were also being made to create public awareness of dispute resolution mechanisms about elections.
Rights groups slam Myanmar birth law as anti-Muslim
26 May, 2015
YANGON A new law that forces some women in Myanmar to have children at least three years apart was on Monday criticised by rights groups who say it will be used to target the country's minority Muslim population.
Myanmar's President Thein Sein signed the population control healthcare bill into law last week, state-controlled media announced on Saturday.
The legislation is backed by the Buddhist ultra-nationalist group the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion, known as Ma Ba Tha.
The group has stoked anti-Muslim sentiment by saying Muslim communities have high birth rates and will eventually overrun the predominately Buddhist country.
"This law targets one religion, one population, in one area," said Khin Lay, founder of the Yangon-based Triangle Women Support Group, which gives women professional and political training and lobbied against the law.
The government denies discriminating against Muslims. It says new the birth law is aimed at improving maternal health and child welfare.
It was unclear how the new law against giving birth in the three-year period would be enforced.
The United States has said the legislation, which falls under "Race and Religion Protection Laws", has the potential to exacerbate racial and religious divisions in the country.
Washington and the United Nations have called on Myanmar to address discrimination and violence against ethnic Rohingya Muslims. They say the government's policy toward the Rohingya minority is a root cause of mass migration that has led to the humanitarian crisis unfolding on Southeast Asia's seas.
Other groups have also expressed concerns that the law could further exacerbate tensions in Rakhine State where violence between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims broke out in 2012. Most of Myanmar's 1.1 million Rohingya are stateless and live in apartheid-like conditions.
"In the case of Rakhine specifically, it will only create misunderstanding between the two communities," said Nwe Zin Win, head of Yangon-based women's rights group Pyi Gyi Khin.
India’s First Halal Cosmetics Store Is Less Religion and More Style
26 May, 2015
When Afreen Shaikh, a 26-year-old resident of Ahmedabad’s Muslim locality of Juhapura, heard there was a new Halal cosmetic store called Iba opening near her home, she rolled her eyes.
“I have been to such places in Dubai and they think Muslim women should look like ghosts,” Shaikh said. “It is always some man working in the store, lecturing us about how the products we normally use are Haram (Islamically prohibited). Then they try to sell us this ugly Halal lipstick that has no style or colour.”
Shaikh was surprised then when she walked into the Iba store last month. “It is good that women work in the store because sometimes shopping for women in Ahmedabad is still like what that woman faces in Dum Laga Ke Haisha,” she said. In the movie, set in Haridwar in the early 1990s, the lead female character is seen looking for lingerie in a shop staffed by cringe-worthy men.
For Shaikh, the fact that Iba’s products are Islamically lawful and vegan is only one draw. “I don’t particularly care about Halal but I don’t want to put a pig or any other animal on my lips. And when I shop, I do not want men staring at me,” she said.
“When I shop, I do not want men staring at me.”
For the company’s two founders, Mauli and Grishma Teli, Iba’s main selling point is that they are the first to provide Halal cosmetics in India. But they are also trying to create a brand that understands women and is eco-conscious.
“We think the Halal concept is the primary appeal and it will pull many in for the first time but our research shows we need to do more to bring them back,” the 32-year-old Mauli said.
Mauli and her sister Grishma spent six years researching and building their company, Ecotrail, before launching their first two stores in Ahmedabad last September. Both grew up as strict vegetarians and developed a love for science at a young age from visiting their parents’ pharmaceutical equipment manufacturing company. After they completed post graduate degrees from the US, they returned to their native Ahmedabad in 2009.
They both liked the idea of starting a makeup company that would create cruelty free products but they saw this as a crowded space dominated by very large companies like Lakme or niche Ayurvedic brands. They spent a few months travelling to beauty salons across India where many women, particularly Muslim, told them they did not wear certain beauty products that contained pig and alcohol. Given that India will have the world’s largest Muslim population by 2050 and currently has no Halal cosmetics company, Mauli and Grishma realised that this could be a massive opportunity.
They named store Iba, which is Arabic for self-respect, and they began to scout for locations in Ahmedabad. When they settled on a space in Juhapura, the area’s wealthier Muslim residents looked flabbergasted: Why would you want to come here?
Jains in “mini-Pakistan”
Eleven years ago, the entrepreneur Nadeem Jafri opened Juhapura’s first grocery story called Hearty Mart. It was two years after the 2002 Gujarat riots and many Muslims had moved to the area because they felt unsafe in other parts of Ahmedabad. Jafri painted his store with bright colours to cheer up customers. However, some suppliers refused to deliver products like Amul butter to his store because they saw Juhapura as a dangerous “mini-Pakistan.”
Today those prejudices still exist but he believes that the image of the area is slightly improving. His business is thriving and he stocks Iba cosmetics at his store, along with Amul butter.
“Today I focus on the positives of Juhapura because I want people to know that this is business-friendly area,” Jafri said.
Mauli and Grishma, who are both Jains, told me they did not face any questions or problems about their faith when opening their business in a Muslim area, but many, especially upper class Muslims, warned them that such a business might not survive. However, they studied the number of footfalls in Juhapura and together with their family’s support, invested Rs8 crore into launching the Iba brand and their first two stores. In designing their stores, they conducted extensive research and learned that Muslim women do not want stores decorated with green flags or Islamic imagery.
Muslim women do not want stores decorated with green flags or Islamic imagery.
It is the first thing Kulsum Mirza, 23, observed when she walked in the Iba shop with its floor to length windows, walnut-coloured wooden shelves, soft lighting, and Hindi television soap actresses in their adverts. Mirza wore jeans and a purple kurta and had shoulder-length hair. Like most customers at the Iba store, Mirza does not wear hijab. This is in contrast to almost every article written on Iba thus far, which portrays their customers with the stereotypical images of Muslim women in black burkas.
But still for women, Juhapura can be a challenging area. There are few coffee shops where women can’t meet with each other, let alone with members of the opposite sex.
“I feel like women—we deserve more places like this store,” Mirza said.
Iba may be launching a home ambassador programme where women would travel from house to house, selling their products, which are priced between Rs100 and Rs300. It is one of the things that excites Jafri the most.
“If their store leads to the creation of women entrepreneurs in the area, it could really transform Juhapura,” he said.
But executing this idea, Mauli cautions me, might not be so easy.
Halal but stylish
In a conference room at their factory headquarters on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, Mauli and Grishma sit on a large table facing a white board that outlines what steps are needed to launch another store. While they did not wish to disclose their earnings thus far, they said that sales have far exceeded their expectations, especially from their tie-up with Amazon. Now they hope to add more stores in Gujarat and across India.
But staff retention remains their biggest challenge. Part of the problem, Mauli says, is that often after they hire a female employee, that employee’s father, husband, or brother tells her that she should quit her job because the family does not need the extra money, or that she is needed at home, or that it does not “look good.”
“It is a complex problem and I think it happens across the country,” Mauli said.
At the moment, Iba’s cosmetic products are also growing fast among Gujarat’s Jain community because they are animal free, but Mauli and Grishma do not want to over-emphasise this. In creating their brand, both of them learned that focusing too much on either their faith or their customer’s faith can be a distraction.
“We believe that all women are the same at some level—they want to look stylish, be eco-conscious, and be comfortable when shopping. We are not trying to solve any communal problems—we want women to feel good and to create a new space for them,” Mauli said.
Botswana’s Traditional Leaders Push for Polygamy Legalization
26 May, 2015
Yarona FM radio station on Monday reported that the tribal leadership in Botswana is reportedly pushing to have polygamy legalized in the Southern African country. The radio station reports that when speaking during the National Culture Day celebrations in Tonota in northern Botswana recently, tribal leader Kebinatshwene Mosielele said traditional leadership was in support of polygamy because the country had good numbers of women being born from which Batswana men can marry more than one.
“There are more girls born than boys, so who should marry those girls? So let us marry more than one woman!” the tribal leader is quoted as saying.
In Rakhine State, Muslim children are disappearing
26 May, 2015
A nine-year-old boy is gone. A 16-year-old girl hasn’t been seen for more than 30 days. But a 14-year-old with fresh scars threading his emaciated back has returned from where it’s tacitly understood the children are disappearing: the human slave trade.
Within Rakhine State’s Rohingya communities – already bitten hard by the scourge of human trafficking – local brokers are increasingly preying upon young teenagers, according to accounts from camp elders and trafficking survivors.
Local agents, often from the same or nearby communities as the victims, have long exploited the extreme poverty and desperation of their neighbours for a cut of the trafficking proceeds. But while the industry was formerly fuelled by job-hungry camp dwellers lured overseas by promises of high wages or large gold dowries, survivors, almost all under the age of 18, are now reporting being beaten, bound and shoved onto departing boats.
“It didn’t use to be like this,” said U Thein Maung, a camp committee member at the Dar Paing camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs).
“The trafficking situation has gotten very, very serious,” he said, adding that the smuggled passengers have shifted from volunteers who could afford to go – including his daughter and sons – to unwilling victims mistreated and sometimes killed during the voyage.
Since about December, he said, local agents have been kidnapping kids from the street, including at least two from his camp.
Rayzuharnar, 16, is one of the missing. Her family hasn’t seen her for almost 40 days.
“On Friday we went to the mosque. She stayed to take care of our mother who had just had an operation,” said her brother, Marmuh Harson, 20. “When we left around 1pm we saw her, but when we came back around 4pm she was gone.”
At first the family thought she might have gone to visit relatives in a neighbouring village, but the relatives hadn’t seen her either. People kept coming and promising they had information about Rayzuharnar’s whereabouts that they would reveal in exchange for large sums of money. Harson said they paid half a dozen people and spent US$500 but still haven’t gotten his sister back.
Then on May 4 the family got a phone call.
“We know now that she’s been trafficked,” said Harson, who said his sister called from a boat in the Andaman Sea.
She said she had been abducted by a woman whose father-in-law lives in their camp. The broker sold Rayzuharnar for $200, though the traffickers wanted $2200 to let her land in Malaysia or else they would sell her off. But the family couldn’t pay, and the calls for the money stopped coming.
When they heard about boat pushback policies in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia leaving thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi passengers stranded at sea on “floating coffins”, they worried even more.
But even as countries along the region’s well-worn smuggling route have reversed their earlier stance and are now allowing migrants to disembark, Rayzuharnar’s family has yet to hear from her.
“We can only hope and pray she is okay,” said Harson.
The stories from other children who have now returned to Sittwe camps from similar ordeals have been chilling.
Fourteen-year-old Mohammad (not his real name) is one among the scores of survivors quietly trickling back into Myanmar’s IDP camps.
With the crackdown in Thailand disrupting the region’s lucrative human smuggling trade and leaving traffickers unable to deliver their human cargo, some parents have been able to pay ransoms to have their abducted children returned to shore.
Visibly thin and unable to walk properly, Mohammad said he is still recovering from 56 days of being held captive on a trafficking boat that never set sail.
“They fed us just once a week,” he said. “We got one cup of water a day and anyone who asked for more or to go to the bathroom was beaten.”
He has the scars to prove it.
Mohammad said he left his camp almost two months ago in search of a job somewhere within the tightly restricted region of Sittwe township where Muslim residents are permitted to travel. He quickly received an offer, allegedly at a carpenter’s store. But instead of making furniture, Mohammad found he had been sold to traffickers.
“When I tried to resist they beat me until I couldn’t move,” he said. “When they told me I had been sold I cried and they beat me more. I felt so trapped. The traffickers told me I would not see my family again.”
Mohammad said he was held for several days because the smugglers were waiting for “a permit from the government” to transfer him and 15 other people onto a vessel waiting in international waters. When he was finally brought onto the boat, a chain and coloured band were put on his wrist. He was told the first would be taken off if he could pay for his release in Malaysia, and the second denoted who he would be sold to if his family didn’t produce the cash.
He estimated that more than 350 people were stuffed so tightly below the deck they could only sit with their knees pressed to their chests.
“There were a couple people who had chosen to go to Thailand or Malaysia, but they were a small percentage. Most of the people on the boat had been forced there,” he said.
Most of the passengers, according to Mohammad, were young Rohingya from Myanmar like himself, with a handful joining the ship from Bangladesh. But while the Bangladeshis remained on the boat after the traffickers discovered and announced they were unable to proceed to Malaysia, the Myanmar passengers were the first to be allowed to call their families and plead for money to get off the boats.
Mohammad‘s older brother said he found out where the 14-year-old was 25 days after the teen left home.
“For 10 days, we thought it was possible he was still looking for a job,” said Mohammad’s brother. “But after 10 days, we knew it was impossible.”
The family found the broker, who said he could return the teen for $300. The family borrowed money from neighbours and relatives, and after 56 days of starving at sea, Mohammad was allowed to come home.
Like all the child victims The Myanmar Times spoke with, Mohammad and his family said they initially tried to file a police report. But then the smugglers paid them a visit.
“They told me if I talked to the police again they would arrest me for lying since I have no proof,” he said.
Families whose children or relatives are still missing said they have turned to police, camp committees and even the local smugglers in an effort to arrange rescues from the marooned boats.
U Tin Maung Swe, the Rakhine State executive secretary, denied that anyone has left from the camps for boats, willingly or unwillingly – he said the government does a “head count” to make sure – and insists all the “boat people” are Bangladeshis.
A parent who asked not be named said police “know the kidnappings are happening” but are complicit in, and are profiting from, a system that makes it “very easy for the Rohingya to leave and very hard for them to come back”.
“Every week I meet with local officials and I always inform them of the smuggling and trafficking situation,” said U Thein Maung, the camp committee member. “They reply that they aren’t concerned with people leaving, just with more people coming.”